Revisiting Pet Sematary by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
I can’t remember when I first read Pet Sematary or where I was when I first read it (unusual for me). All I really remember is the story, and my intense reaction to it.
I was a freshman in college when Pet Sematary was published in November 1983. My best guess is that I read it within a year of publication. I do recall devouring a hardcover edition that I believe my sister, Mary, gave to me as a gift (she blessed me with several of King’s books during those early years).
So…I was young. That much I know. Brand shiny new to the perils of adulthood. Wide-eyed, unmarried, and childless.
And still Pet Sematary destroyed me.
‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie and The Shining had thrilled me and scared me – but Pet Sematary was different. Once things went bad (and this happened quickly by King standards; only about a third of the way into the book), they not only stayed bad, they kept getting worse. Much worse. The rest of the book was a dark spiral and there were no reprieves to be found anywhere. The story was grim and unrelenting and profoundly unpleasant…yet I couldn’t stop reading.
King spends the first third of Pet Sematary introducing and establishing a fairly small (for him) cast of characters and a wonderful sense of place. Ludlow, Maine is the kind of small, picturesque New England town so many of us wish we had grown up in, and the Creeds and the Crandalls are the kind of folks we wish we had grown up across the street from: kind, big-hearted, interesting, companionable folks with a real sense of friendship and loyalty.
That first third of the book is sweet and homey and ripe with the fascinating characterization and backstory King so excels at providing his readers. We learn all about the history of the town and its inhabitants, the nearby college where Louis will soon be working, Norma’s homemade cookies and horrible arthritis, Rachel’s dark family history and fear of death, Louis’s stormy relationship with his father-in-law and his burgeoning father-son relationship with Jud, and yes we learn all about the mysterious Pet Sematary located just down the winding path that borders the Creed’s back yard.
But even the Pet Sematary is portrayed as a place of love and remembrance. A hidden away place the children of Ludlow built long ago and still tend to today; their own shrine and their own secret way of coping and remembering. Initially, only Rachel feels an aversion to the Pet Sematary, and once we learn her backstory, we understand why. For the others, especially Louis, it’s more a place of wonder and fascination.
Not even the gory accidental death of college student Victor Pascow can spoil the warm glow of the novel’s opening act. Sure, it made for a tough first day at the office for Louis, and there were those unsettling words that Pascow somehow managed to speak to Louis before expiring…but hey shit happens, right? Louis is a doctor after all. Not the first person he has witnessed dying and certainly won’t be the last.
Oh boy, does that turn out to be an understatement for our poor Doctor Creed.
I remember with great clarity and affection this first third of Pet Sematary. As so often happens when reading a King novel, I found myself falling in love with the Creeds and the Crandalls. They became people I not only identified with but folks I grew to deeply care about.
Just in time to witness their tragic downfall.
And that, Constant Readers, is Stephen King’s ultimate gift.
I think I’ll save many of Pet Sematary’s most popular moments to discuss in the “Revisited” section of this essay and will focus here on my strongest personal memories from that long-ago initial reading. As you will soon discover, there are significant differences to be found in each experience.
Perhaps more than any other Stephen King novel, the fact that I was two very different people at the time of each reading really shone through in my reactions to the book. Considering the central storyline, that makes a great deal of sense.
Regardless of the fact that I may have been young and dumb and not yet a father of my own children, the death of Gage Creed still floored me. Of course it did. Not because I could place myself in Louis’s shoes and imagine what it felt like to lose a child in such a sorrowful manner, but simply because I couldn’t believe that King did it. Even after the Glick brothers in ‘Salem’s Lot and Tad Trenton in Cujo, I couldn’t believe he did it!
In fact, I was so stunned by Gage’s death and the emotions it stirred, it didn’t even occur to me what was going to happen next. Not until the night before the funeral when Louis got drunk and his mind started wandering to places it shouldn’t have wandered. Another prime example of King’s magic: Louis and I somehow made that dark journey inside our consciences together…
Jud was speaking in his mind:
You do it because it gets hold of you. You do it because that burial place is a secret place, and you want to share the secret…you make up reasons…they seem like good reasons…mostly you do it because you want to. Or because you have to.
There are secret things, Louis…the soil of a man’s heart is stonier…like the soil up in the old Micmac burying ground. A man grows what he can…and he tends it.
What do you want to buy next, Louis, when the wind blows hard at night and the moon lays a white path through the woods to that place? Want to climb those stairs again? When they’re watching a horror movie, everyone in the audience knows the hero or the heroine is stupid to go up those stairs, but in real life they always do—they smoke, they don’t wear seat belts, they move their family in beside a busy highway where the big rigs drone back and forth all day and all night. So, Louis, what do you say? Want to climb the stairs? Would you like to keep your dead son or go for what’s behind Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number Three?
But strangely—or perhaps not so strangely considering where I was in my own life’s timeline—there were other scenes that disturbed me to a far greater degree. Subtle, real life scenes (as opposed to all the supernatural hijinks going on) that I have a feeling many other readers flipped past without a lingering thought.
For instance, Norma Crandall’s funeral…
When Jud stood beside the pallbearers and watched them slide the coffin into the hearse, he said, “Goodbye, Norma. I’ll see you in a while, old girl” – and my heart ached. A page later, when King writes about fading family ties and the inevitability of the present swallowing up the past, my heart broke all the way, and I found myself fearing for my own family ties and promising myself that this would never happen to me:
The burly nephews (or second cousins, or whatever they were) had already done a fade, the simple job of lifting and carrying done. They had grown distant from this part of the family; they had known the woman’s face from photographs and a few duty visits—long afternoons in the parlor eating Norma’s cookies and drinking Jud’s beer, perhaps not really minding the old stories of times they had not lived through and people they had not known, but aware of things they could have been doing all the same (a car that could have been washed and Turtle-waxed, a league bowling practice, maybe just sitting around the TV and watching a boxing match with some friends), and glad to be away when the duty was done.
Jud’s part of the family was in the past now, as far as they were concerned; it was like an eroded planetoid drifting away from the main mass, dwindling, little more than a speck. The past. Pictures in an album. Old stories told in rooms that perhaps seemed too hot to them—they were not old; there was no arthritis in their joints; their blood had not thinned. The past was runners to be gripped and hefted and later let go. After all, if the human body was an envelope to hold the human soul—God’s letters to the universe—as most churches taught, then the American Eternal coffin was an envelope to hold the human body, and to those husky young cousins or nephews or whatever they were, the past was just a dead letter to be filed away.
I remember reading this passage several times, as the ache slowly strangled my heart. Norma and Jud deserved better. We all deserved better. I swore this would never happen to me and the people I cared about.
Of course, as a much older man now, I know better.
There were many other similar moments of reality-based distress for me in Pet Sematary. I recall feeling a profound sadness and disappointment when Jud admitted to his occasional whoring during his telling of the Timmy Baterman story. The “small, white coffin” they buried Gage inside and little Ellie standing at the cemetery, clutching the photo of her pulling her brother in a sled in the snow, stuck in my memory for days after I finished the novel.
And then there was, for me, the most shattering scene of them all. Here are just a handful of excerpts from an excruciatingly lengthy passage:
He held his breath, listening over the papery rustle of his heart.
Here was a sound—not the same one that had awakened him, but something. The faint creak of hinges.
“Louis?” he called but with no real hope. That wasn’t Louis out there. Whatever was out there had been sent to punish an old man for his pride and vanity.
Footsteps moved slowly up the hall toward the living room.
“Louis?” he tried to call again, but only a faint croak emerged because now he could smell the thing which had come into the house here at the end of the night. It was a dirty, low smell—the smell of poisoned tidal flats.
Gage Creed came in, dressed in his burial suit. Moss was growing on the suit’s shoulders and lapels. Moss had fouled his white shirt. His fine blond hair was caked with dirt. One eye had gone to the wall; it stared off into space with terrible concentration. The other was fixed on Jud.
Gage was grinning at him.
“Hello, Jud,” Gage piped in a babyish but perfectly understandable voice. “I’ve come to send your rotten, stinking old soul straight to hell.”
“Norma’s dead, and there’ll be no one to mourn you,” Gage said. “What a cheap slut she was. She fucked every one of your friends, Jud. She let them put it up her ass. That’s how she liked it best. She’s burning down in hell, arthritis and all. I saw her there, Jud. I saw her there.”
“Listen, Jud,” it whispered—and then its mouth hung open, baring small milk teeth, and although the lips did not move, Norma’s voice issued forth.
“I laughed at you! We all laughed at you! How we laaaaaaauuughed—”
“Stop it!” The cleaver jittered in his hand.
“We did it in our bed, Herk and I did it, I did with George, I did it with all of them. I knew about your whores but you never knew you married a whore and how we laughed, Jud! We rutted together and we laaaaaauuughed at—”
I was absolutely devastated.
Dammit, Steve. Kill Church if you have to. Splatter cute little Gage in the middle of the highway if that gives you a good chuckle behind the keyboard. But, for Godsake, don’t mess with sweet old, cookie-baking Norma Crandall.
Norma…a filthy, lying whore? For me, that was a whole lot more disturbing than a moss-covered, evil grinning Gage slicing Jud to death with Louis’s scalpel. I kept turning the pages and praying it was a trick—not my sweet Norma!—but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t. It was the cold, hard truth—and we were stuck with it. Just as in real life, there are some truths even the past can’t erase.
One final note before you all start thinking I’m just a sappy, sentimental fool all but helpless to stop King from yanking at my heartstrings. There’s one other short passage in Pet Sematary I clearly remember being enamored with enough to read aloud to my college friends. This one evokes a completely different type of emotion.
He grabbed Church’s tail, spread the mouth of the bag, and lifted the cat. He pulled a disgusted, unhappy face at the sound the cat’s body made coming up—rrrriiippp as he pulled it out of the frost it had set into.
That right there, folks, is just too cool for school.
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
Chapter 35 of Pet Sematary opens with Louis declaring (after a joyous afternoon of kite flying with his son) that he thinks this is the last happy day of his life—but I think that day comes much earlier, and he just doesn’t know it.
Because nothing is the same after Church dies.
When the Creed family cat is run down out on Route 15, it starts a spiraling chain of events, a dark descent, not unlike what we witness happening to the Torrance family in The Shining. But, unlike the events at the Overlook, this time there is no escape—for anyone.
Follow me on this:
* Church gets run over while Rachel and the kids are away for Thanksgiving.
* Instead of phoning Ellie with the bad news, Louis allows Jud to take him to the Micmac burial ground where they bury Church.
A not-so-quick aside, as this is my absolute favorite section of the entire book. Here are just a few of the passages that held me spellbound from that journey:
The bobbing light of Jud’s flash was part of it. He felt the pervasive, undeniable, magnetic presence of some secret. Some dark secret.
“You know,” Louis said. “I feel better than I have in maybe six years. I know that’s a crazy thing to say when you’re burying your daughter’s cat, but it’s the flat truth, Jud. I feel good.”
“This place can be like that, Louis, and don’t you ever forget it. I hope to God I’m doing right.”
He turned his face up into the wind and felt it sweep past him in an endless current, lifting his hair. It was so cold, so clean…so constant.
“There’s a lot of funny things down this way, Louis. The air’s heavier…more electrical…or something.”
Now the thing out there seemed to be so close that Louis expected to see its shape at any moment, rising up on two legs, perhaps, blotting out the stars with some unthought-of, immense and shaggy body.
Louis opened his mouth again, the words What was that? already on his tongue. Then a shrill, maniacal laugh came out of the darkness, rising and falling in hysterical cycles, loud, piercing, chilling.
The laughter rose, split into dry cackles like some rottenly friable chunk of rock along many fault lines; it reached the pitch of a scream, then sank into a guttural chuckling that might have become sobs before it faded out altogether.
He looked up and saw a billion stars, cold lights in the darkness. Never in his life had the stars made him feel so completely small, infinitesimal, without meaning. He asked himself the question—is there anything intelligent out there?—and instead of wonder, the thought brought a horrid cold feeling…
The wind blew hard up here, but it felt clean. Louis saw a number of shapes just under the gloom cast by the trees—trees which were the oldest, tallest firs he had ever seen. The whole effect of this high, lonely place was emptiness—but an emptiness which vibrated.
The dark shapes were cairns of stones.
And so much more, folks. Hidden pools of quicksand. Forty-five rough steps carved into ancient rock. Swirling ground mist. Things moving out there in the brush…big things…getting closer.
* The next day Church comes back to life—only he’s not quite Church anymore.
There was dried blood caked on Church’s muzzle, and caught in his long whiskers were two tiny shreds of green plastic. Bits of Hefty Bag.
Church purred unevenly and rubbed back and forth along Louis’s ankles. The feel of the cat caused Louis to break out in gooseflesh, and he had to clench his teeth grimly to keep from kicking him away. His furry sides felt somehow too slick, too thick—in a word, loathsome.
Church streaked past him to get it, and Louis could have sworn he smelled sour earth—as if it had been ground into the cat’s fur.
* Soon after, Rachel and the kids arrive home. But things are subtly different. There is a foreboding sense of dread in the air now, and it’s gaining momentum. The kids have new wardrobes, bought and paid for by Louis’s in-laws. Gage is sick and nearly chokes on his vomit. Church continues to smell and act funny and has gone from being an affectionate “he” to an “it.” Soon after, Norma Crandall passes away, and in the aftermath, we learn the story of Rachel’s long deceased sister, Zelda, and the scars she has left on Rachel’s soul. As a result, Louis’s dislike for Rachel’s parents deepens even further. Then, not long after (and keep in mind, we are barely past the halfway mark of the book at this point)…
* …the worst of the worst occurs—as Gage is killed by a speeding truck out on Route 15.
I’ve already written about the deep shock I experienced the first time around when Gage was killed. There wasn’t any shock or surprise this time around. I knew it was coming, I knew I would get to the scene eventually if I kept turning the pages, which probably goes a long way to explaining why it took me so damn long to reread Pet Sematary and sit down and write this essay.
As the father of two young boys, it was just too much—a profound and suffocating emotional numbness.
I put the book down each night, and my head imagined all kinds of real-life possibilities. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t stop myself.
In my own personal life, I had lived the scene where Louis says goodnight to Gage after a wonder-filled afternoon of kite-flying a hundred times over. I knew with great intimacy what that end-of-the-day-snuggle felt like. How amazing it was—and also how scary it was.
True to form, King has Church make an appearance in this scene. The cat is hiding in Gage’s dark closet, perhaps symbolic of the boogeyman hiding in every child’s bedroom closet (or under the bed!) at one time or another. Louis takes control and shoos the cat away, like any responsible parent, and we enjoy the temporary sense that all is okay in the world. All is safe. After all, that’s what any good father or mother does; they protect their child from the boogeymen of the world. They keep them safe.
Only sometimes even the best of fathers are too late to save their children. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes this happens…
Louis had thrown himself forward in a flying tackle, his shadow tracking the ground beneath him…and he believed that the tips of his fingers had actually brushed the back of the light jacket Gage had been wearing, and then Gage’s forward motion had carried him out into the road, and the truck had been thunder, the truck had been sunlight on high chrome, the truck had been the deep-throated, shrieking bellow of an air horn…
Sometimes, folks, the boogeyman wins.
* Okay, deep breath, you know the rest…
Louis’s have-to-see-it-to-believe-it fight with his father-in-law at Gage’s viewing. Gage’s funeral (and that tiny, white coffin) and Louis’s solo drive back to the cemetery later that evening where his fractured mind hatches an impossible plan (I still shiver when I picture him tracing a spiral in the graveyard dirt without even realizing that he’s doing it). Louis reconciling with father-in-law Irwin Goldman and sending Rachel and Ellie back to Chicago with her parents…clearing the way for his hideous plot. The almost unbearable scenes at the cemetery…
The smell hit him first, and Louis recoiled, gagging.
Gently he used his handkerchief to wipe away the damp moss that was growing on Gage’s skin—moss so dark that he had been momentarily fooled into thinking Gage’s whole head was gone.
Looking at his son was like looking at a badly made doll. Gage’s head bulged in strange directions. His eyes had sunken deep behind closed lids. Something white protruded from his mouth like an albino tongue…
“Gage,” he said, and began to rock the boy in his arms. “I love you, Daddy loves you.”
…and Louis’s late night return trip to the Micmac burial ground (can’t you still picture Louis disappearing down the path carrying a bundled-up Gage, as seen over a sleeping Jud’s shoulder from just inside his front window? I certainly can!), where the spirits of the “burying ground” are working at the height of their powers now, not only calling out to Louis but also preventing Jud and Rachel from reaching him in time to stop him. The dark spiral swirling on and on and on…and all the while the clock is ticking, faster and faster, winding us down to our inexorable destination.
But I digress.
Like I said, you all know the rest. No need to go over that horrid final act in any greater detail.
It’s etched in all our memories.
“Darling,” she says, her mouth full of graveyard dirt…and we don’t need to imagine what comes next. We know, in our hearts, it’s not a happy ending.
We don’t need to imagine what comes next—but we do it anyway.
We can’t stop ourselves.
Just as, ultimately, Louis couldn’t stop himself.
* * *
How about the entire freaking last act?
Or the Zelda flashback?
Or Jud’s bloody confrontation with a back-from-the-grave Gage?
Or Rachel’s late night arrival at Jud’s house in the final pages?
Or try this one on for size:
Just before the first signs of dawn touched the sky in the east, there were footsteps on the stairs. They were slow and clumsy but purposeful. A shadow moved in the shadows of the hall. A smell came with it—a stench. Louis, even in his thick sleep, muttered and turned away from that smell. There was the steady pull and release of respiration.
The shape stood outside the master bedroom door for some little time, not moving. Then it came inside. Louis’s face was buried in his pillow. White hands reached out, and there was a click as the black doctor’s bag by the bed was opened.
A low clink and shift as the things inside were moved.
The hands explored, pushing aside drugs and ampules and syringes with no interest at all. Now they found something and held it up. In the first dim light there was a gleam of silver.
The shadowy thing left the room.
Chilling. Understated. Terrifying. And any chance of a happy ending is gone.
I discussed this in great detail up above: Louis and Jud’s first journey to the Micmac burial ground to bury Ellie’s cat, Church.
The scene spans twenty pages or so in my paperback edition and reads like a fever dream of some distant memory. Not merely a scene from a book, but something I once lived and breathed.
It’s scary. Suspenseful. Dreamlike. Nightmarish. Brilliant. Mysterious.
And you can’t turn the pages fast enough.
I think it’s King’s finest writing in Pet Sematary.
A cold hand fell on Louis’s shoulder. Rachel’s voice was grating, full of dirt.
“Darling,” it said.
More than one line, but I don’t care. Still chills me today.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
So many cringe-worthy scenes to pick from (maybe more than any other King novel). I think I’ll cheat a little and settle on two:
My first choice is the scene where Louis and his father-in-law Irwin Goldman get into a fight at Gage’s viewing. Beginning as a scotch-induced verbal confrontation before quickly escalating to physical, the scene runs nearly six-and-a-half pages in the Pocket Books paperback edition. In other words, just as with the rest of Pet Sematary, King doesn’t let us readers off easily. He doesn’t flinch. Not only is it a brutally uncomfortable scene, it’s a lengthy one, too. It finally ends with Louis sitting on the floor, his face in his hands, and Irwin Goldman sprawled amidst the funeral service flowers, both of them weeping, while a hysterical Rachel is led away by her mother.
But not before this little slice of joy:
The coffin did not actually open and spill Gage’s sad, hurt remains out onto the floor for all of them to gawp at, but Louis was sickly aware that they had only been spared that by the way the coffin had fallen—on its bottom instead of on its side. It easily could have fallen that other way. Nonetheless in that split instant before the lid slammed shut on its broken latch again, he saw a flash of gray—the suit they had bought to put in the ground around Gage’s body. And a bit of pink. Gage’s hand, maybe.
In my mind, it was Gage’s hand we caught a glimpse of—and the image still haunts me today.
Next up is another scene already covered in some detail up above, so I’ll just stick to the basics here: my second choice for most cringe-inducing scene is the final confrontation between a returned-from-the-grave Gage and Jud Crandall. When Gage appears, wearing his moss-covered burial suit and that evil smile of his and starts spewing the darkest of dark truths about Jud’s late wife, Norma, I wanted to simultaneously throw up and hurl the book across the room. It bothered me that much.
Of course, I did neither.
Instead, I turned to the next page.
Damn you, Stephen King!
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
My God, was there anyone left?
I think we all know—despite our best wishes—that good things were not in the cards for Louis’s future…regardless of what that cold hand on his shoulder and that dirt-clogged “Darling” signified.
So, that leaves Ellie. Sweet Ellie with her night terrors and hands clutching her baby brother’s photograph. Ellie’s the Danny Torrance of this story, and lacking any other sensible choices, I guess I would like to know what happens to her.
But only if it’s a happy ending. Okay, Steve? Steve…?
START DATE – March 19, 2016
FINISH DATE – April 23, 2016
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.